Interview with Steve Hedley, CEO, Hedley’s Fine Art Logistics
Logistics, the shipping of goods in expert fashion from A-B and working out how to deal with a myriad of unknown factors is not only the tedium of any business transaction, it is the part that nobody, however rich, is willing to pay for. Nevertheless, it is just about the most important part of a business transaction be it auction house or private sale, interior design, art gallery and dealer, art fair, online sale or simply one of the many high end removals needing adroit planning and handling in the arena of luxury yachts, Belgravia mansions or a new embassy refit.
Hedley’s, CEO Steve Hedley explains why transport is more than just ‘transport’ and gives clarity to the process involved for those in the luxury sector.
PML: I understand that Hedley’s has been operating for some 40 years starting as specialists in antiques. How did you evolve from working the antiques trade around London’s Portobello Road market to masterminding the logistics for the world’s greatest art collections?
SH: I started with a van as a student and it has taken an awful lot of hard work and dedication with relatively low rewards!
That aside, I concentrated on what is known in the trade as “groupage” -part loads that the “big boys” were not interested in, but could, if well organised, be lucrative.
PML: How does the handling of art and luxury goods differ from standard transport projects?
SH: It’s the difference between MacDonald’s and Haute Cuisine, the complexity is extremely hard to capture in a sentence. The goods are as delicate and intricate as the customers who value them. Our white glove service and diamond service ensure attention to every detail because one broken link can cause a loss of reputation. Moreover, when shipping across frontiers and territories, the customs differ according to local laws, worse still the legislation changes continuously. Just to give you an example – try shipping a piece of Rosewood furniture overseas … or a valuable libation horn of ivory, or ancient barometer containing mercury across the world. That’s just the beginning of a catalogue of potential invidious disasters. Imagine the delicate and intricate chandeliers you see in hotels. It is an art and a skill to get goods from A-B overcoming the obstacles.
PML: These are potential hurdles we never think about until we have to and probably the tip of the iceberg! You have many ultra high net worth individuals you care for which adds another layer of complexity. How do you reassure them that goods worth thousands and often millions will reach their homes in tact?
SH: Extra care is of course needed in handling the items and packing them and we have to have specialists who do this and we have to be able to estimate the cost with expertise … or we would not stay in business!
PML: What about the packing and crating – how is that differing from standard removals?
SH: There is a lot of care needed with packing and crating too – we use high quality crating materials and constantly review suppliers and new innovations. Sometimes I think this is crazy because the crates get thrown away in the end – it is a dreadful waste. Nevertheless, with extremely high value artworks, we cannot afford to take the risk for the painting or indeed the frame which can be equally valuable, if it is, say, intricate wood carving from the 17th century.
PML: I understand your client list reads like a BAFTA and Grammy award ceremony attendance, please comment!
SH: Needless to say I cannot comment! We work with strict confidentiality agreements and our team are longstanding, trustworthy staff who we take into people’s homes. Our drivers and estimators know how to behave with the customers, we have specialist training and are continually revisiting our good practice documents.
Of course we need to go to people’s homes as well as to luxury hotels, yachts and stately homes to estimate and quote – we work with discretion and find our staff are much liked and in demand. The downside of this is that recruitment is a nightmare. You cannot pull in a ‘man with van’, you can only work with those you truly know and trust. Integrity is everything but it means we cannot always service client demands because if we cannot vouch for the people we are sending in, we would rather turn down the job. That is a very hard decision to make when you are running a tight ship … ask any businessman.
PML: Indeed! It sounds like there are easier ways to make money, even at the top of your game! But truly, can transport really be a specialist luxury service or is it merely the ‘dirty’ side of the business?
SH: I might agree with you but I have been doing this for years and it is in my blood, I would not know what else to do! Collectors, dealers and those with valuable goods generally learn that a ‘luxury’ service is a worthwhile investment. There have been many cases where buyers collect themselves or with a man and a van from galleries, dealers or auction house in order to save money. It can end in disaster where paintings or antiques are wrapped in and not properly crated, not carefully loaded in padded vans with air suspension nor expertly packed. We often have to pick up the pieces and then it represents an added expense for the client, unwanted repairs and unnecessary delays. It simply is not worth it, nevertheless, I am surprised that some people never learn and do not visualise what might go wrong!
PML: So I suppose they learn the hard way?! Is there an exclusive aspect to logistics? How do clients perceive transport firms?
SH: Yes there is elitism and whilst we are incredibly proud of our ability to navigate difficult global waters, there is a mixed reception in the marketplace. Hedley’s, I am proud to say does receive good feedback and we are seen as the company that is a specialist and smaller, therefore careful. Dare I use the cliche ‘boutique’?! In addition to big interior design and art projects, we handle high end removals and one day we served a Lady in Belgravia who became very upset. The reason was that we had dispatched a discrete ‘unbranded’ van to her house, when in fact she wanted to show off to her neighbours that she was using Hedley’s! We were sorry to disappoint her but delighted to be known in the area as the elite option.
PML: Hedley’s mission is very simple and it is your success factor. You claim to ship an artefact from A-B without losing it, without breaking it, in timely fashion and at a reasonable price?
SH: Yes, this is the key to a good logistics business. Transport is one of the most important parts of the retail value chain and it is important not to let anyone down. In the luxury sector our clients have a reputation to maintain in their own spheres, an interior designer working with a celebrity or a luxury hotel. We have to ensure we enhance that reputation and maintain the perception of their respected brand as well as ours. This means aiming for good communication and a smooth operation every time.
PML: Please give me one fascinating fact about Luxury and logistics!
SH: This is definitely the expense that nobody wants, even if our clients have bought a luxury yacht or house in Belgravia! We work with the world’s top auction houses and find that even clients who regularly purchase say a Picasso worth millions are cost conscious about paying for transport. One client complained about the cost saying “I could have carried it in my private jet for nothing!”
Pandora Mather-Lees, Director, IORMA Luxury